By Stanford Friedman
Invisible forces are at work in Will Arbery’s poetic and absurdist 2018 dramedy, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing. Not just the burn of the titular road salt, hidden in melting snow, which we learn thirsty animals drink, causing “salt toxicity including dehydration, confusion, and death.” There is also the pull of “dark energy,” a concept that suggests 96% of everything in the universe is unknown. There is anxiety, pressing against the rib cage, and grief that renders a body immobile, and the plain, dead weight of existential dread. In its New York premiere, presented by The New Group, and directed with precision by Danya Taymor, these forces are lassoed into a lively and captivating 100 minutes of theater, even when time itself becomes unmoored.
Evanston, Illinois seems an unlikely spot to serve as the frozen, dark epicenter of suicidal thoughts and vanished pasts. But for Peter (Jeb Kreager), a salt truck driver, and his co-worker Basil (Ken Leung), its icy roads and salt storage facility are where dreams go to die. The pair are perhaps distant relatives of Beckett’s Didi and Gogo. But instead of waiting for Godot, they are slipping toward irrelevance. Kreager and Leung are ideally cast; physical opposites who add layers of complexity to their characters’ buddy-buddy relationship.
Peter speaks in concrete sentences, explicitly stating the nature of his sorrow, albeit with a knack for non-sequiturs which provides a much needed comic edge to his ever more tragic life. A typical workday finds him declaring, “I’m gonna get rid of the hot tub. Hot tubs have zero value. It’s like selling used toothbrushes. Basil, I want to kill myself.” Basil is much more ethereal. He is a writer of stories when not a spreader of salt, an immigrant from Greece seemingly happy to have deserted his family, and a victim of a ghostly presence identified as The Lady in the Purple Hat; she pervades his dreams and occasionally his reality. As befitting their personalities, Peter ultimately crystalizes into a wiser, if still damaged person, while Basil melts, almost literally, into nothingness.
The two are supervised, both during and after work, by Jane Maiworm (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Assistant Director of Public Works. Though as Jane’s adult stepdaughter, Jane Jr. (Rachel Sachnoff) observes, she would be more content as an Assistant Director of Private Works. Her encounters with Basil would definitely raise eyebrows with HR, while her working relationship with Peter is laced with pity. Feeling the crush of bureaucracy all around her, she balances the demands of her job against its consequences. It’s only a matter of time before electrically heated streets are installed, rendering salt, and its spreaders, unnecessary. Fortunately, time, when tracked by the calendar of city government, barely moves at all, as exemplified in a wonderfully silly scene where the play briefly slips years into the future with no progress being made.
A third Jane is also on hand in the guise of real-life author and activist Jane Jacobs. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is Jane’s urban planning bible, and its title resonates throughout the evening, with the playwright frequently pointing out the shaky foundation of mortality. When Jane Jr. asks Peter, “Um, do you think there’s something underneath everything that wants us to die,” his immediate response is, “100%. I know it to be true.”
Scenic designer Matt Saunders has constructed a clever warehouse facade with loading dock doors which rise to reveal a partitioned two-level set that includes Peter and Basil’s truck cab, a safe space for the men who otherwise are surrounded by darkness and designer Mikaal Sulaiman’s ominous sound effects of cars skidding on the relentless ice.
Evanston Salt Costs Climbing – by Will Arbery; directed by Danya Taymor.
WITH: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Maiworm), Ken Leung (Basil), Rachel Sachnoff (Jane Jr.) and Jeb Kreager (Peter).
Scenic design by Matt Saunders, costume design by Sarafina Bush, lighting design by Isabella Byrd, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St. https://thenewgroup.org/production/evanston-salt-costs-climbing/ Through December 18. Running time: 100 minutes